On this day in 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law. It was the first legislation to diverge from the previous official U.S. policy to respect Native Americans’ legal and political rights. Jackson announced his policy by saying, “It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation.” He also said, “Toward the aborigines of the country no one can indulge a more friendly feeling than myself, or would go further in attempting to reclaim them from their wandering habits and make them a happy, prosperous people.”
The policy primarily affected five tribes: the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole nations of the southeastern United States. In 1823, the Supreme Court ruled that the white settlers’ “right of discovery” superseded the Indians’ “right of occupancy.” The five nations resisted nonviolently at first, and tried to assimilate into Anglo-American practices of education, large-scale farming, and slave-holding, but to no avail, and about 100,000 Indians were forcibly marched thousands of miles – sometimes in manacles – to lands west of the Mississippi, most of which were deemed undesirable by white settlers. As many as 25 percent died en route.
The Cherokee nation battled the Removal Act in courts of law, and the Seminoles of Florida battled it literally; Chief Osceola said: “You have guns, and so have we. You have powder and lead, and so have we. You have men, and so have we. Your men will fight and so will ours, till the last drop of the Seminole’s blood has moistened the dust of his hunting ground.”